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|The Wolves and the Shepherds|
14 June 2013
The prison guard slammed shut the iron door of my cell in just enough time to block the blue flames I hurled his way. I collapsed to my knees, panting and sweating. Ming tried to place her hand on my shoulder, but she jumped back when I let out a scream of sheer fury. I glanced to both sides and quickly noticed that we were in nothing more than a small metal box, imprisoned... alone... helpless.
Breathing a little more steadily, I rose to my feet and turned around, only to see Ming weeping behind me. Unsure of exactly what to do, I embraced her with a hug and wiped the tears from her face. "Listen Ming," I said softly, "We're gonna get out of this, okay?"
She could hardly speak. "But Dad-"
"Dad's fine," I lied. "We're both going to be alright. Soon I'll figure out what's going on, and then I'll get us out of here."
My sister tried to say something, but her sobbing made it impossible. Seeing the expression of pure terror on her face convinced me of one thing: no one involved in my father's murder would be in one piece by the time I was done with them. I could still see Long's smirk as he tore apart our lives, and I couldn't wait to rip his head off and peel it like a fruit. "This is not the end," I assured Ming. "I'm going to fight for us. Just stay strong." I wanted to break down the same way she was, but I had to stay composed for her. "Come on now. Take deep breaths. We can't show them any fear, you hear me? We're gonna look them in the eye and prove to them that they shouldn't of messed with us."
I didn't notice the cell door open behind me. "Are you sure you want to discourage fear?" I heard Long tease. "Power is born of fear. You should accept it. Embrace it. Use it."
For a second, I was motionless. I could feel my eye twitch. Then I swung around, ready to make Long regret the day he slithered out of his mother's vagina. Before I got the chance, my wrists were caught by two guards who pinned me to the ground. Ming screamed, and the worst part was knowing that she watched me be rendered helpless. I was brought to my knees, from which I glared at the War Commissioner and spat in his face.
"Well that was rude," he sneered, wiping off my saliva.
"You're lucky I didn't blow fire at you," I taunted. "Blue fire, to be exact."
"My, my. You certainly don't take after your father's charm. Did he teach you anything?"
"He taught me how to take care of pricks like you."
"I've heard enough," he jeered, irritated. He spun on his heels and motioned for the guards to follow him, dragging me along. "I'll be back, Ming," I promised. "I just need to roll some heads first." I gulped when her faint whimper reached my ear just as the heavy door was shut, separating us with a thick wall of iron. My sight remained fix on the back of Long's head, my eyes piercing his soul. You may be thinking that I was overly belligerent, but would you be acting any differently if you were in my shoes? If you would be, then you owe your father an apology.
I didn't realize that my hands were cuffed until we had walked a good ways down the prison's corridors. In which facility I was being held wasn't clear, but I came to accept that my original hopes of a dramatic escape with Ming were not as realistic as I had hoped. We passed several other guards on our way to wherever we were going, and not one of them failed to stare me down like I had committed a mass murder.
"Fuckin' Mau Xanh," I caught one mutter.
"Go fuck yourself!" I retorted, earning a jab from one of the guards and a stern look from Long. The walk took longer than I expected, so I figured it had to be a notably large prison. "Would you at least be so kind as to tell me where I am?" I inquired dryly. No response. Eventually, Long stopped walking and looked at me, pondering something. He took some sort of cloth from his pocket and wet it with a strange liquid. Then he brought it to my face.
When I woke up, the room around me was spinning, and I had a throbbing pain in my head. I tried to move, but my hands were chained to the back of my chair, my feet bound to the floor. After a few moments, I could clearly make out the face on the other side of a small table.
I was instantly outraged. "Did you do this?" I demanded.
The gray-haired man didn't reply, but rather stared back at me with his wrinkled, golden eyes.
Calmly, I told him exactly what I planned to do. "I'm going to kill you."
"Hmph. That's a pretty bold threat. Saying that to the Fire Lord is illegal, you know."
"I don't care. I'm going to kill you. You've earned it."
"Can I get you something to drink?"
I was astounded by the way he was conducting himself. Was this a joke? How could he behave as if it was just a regular afternoon? "In case you forgot, you had my father murdered."
"Murdered? No. He was executed. Such is the appropriate punishment for treason."
"Treason?" I scoffed. "I'd like to know exactly what he did!"
"That's not important. Aren't you wondering why the Fire Lord made time just to speak with you?"
"Because you think I practice black magic? Or maybe this is a conjugal visit?"
"Enough!" He slammed his fist on the table, perhaps trying to get a reaction out of me. The disappointment on his face when I didn't move a muscle satisfied me. "You have no idea what great deal of mercy has been shown for you after you plead guilty to blue Firebending. You should be burning at the stake, but instead, I have pardoned you. I've spared you... for now."
"That sounds like the beginning of a threat."
"No, let me tell you what I want," I spat. "I want to know why you killed my father, why you burned down my house, why you captured me and my sister, and where I am!"
I was clearly getting under his skin. "Don't you dare interrupt the Fire Lord! I am here to present you with an opportunity that will save your life!" He cleared his throat. "And we must have a very important discussion."
I took "discussion" to mean him talking while I imagined his lightly-salted face frying in a skillet.
Sozin sat upright "Rhong!" he called. Before a second passed, a man entered through a small, wooden door. He boasted the uniform of an elite group of the military known as the Imperial Firebenders. They were assigned directly to the security detail of the royal family, and they were much more skilled than typical soldiers like ones who raided my house.
Rhong didn't utter a word. All he did was place a few pieces of parchment in front of Sozin on the table. Then, he bowed and left.
After inhaling for what seemed like an hour, Sozin spoke. "I'm sure you want nothing more than freedom for you and your sister."
He was wrong. There was one thing I desired more than that: his head on a silver platter, but I kept that thought to myself and merely nodded.
"Well, you can earn it. It won't be easy, but if you do what you're told, you will be granted complete freedom and the Fire Nation government will never bother you again. You'll even be a hero."
I remained silent as he slid one of the papers my way and waited for me to examine it. The sheet bore a curious symbol and the headline "Crimson Wolves," which was something I had never heard of before. Sozin explained as I perused the article.
"The Crimson Wolves are a treacherous organization of individuals within the Fire Nation government and military who secretly oppose the expansion of our greatness across the world. Their name comes from their belief in 'separating from the pack,' and they don't care how bloody they will be after committing high treason."
The crimson wolves.
"Their movement," the Fire Lord continued, "has been mostly minuscule and harmless thus far, but I fear that they're gaining momentum, and we have reason to believe that they could be plotting major acts of betrayal, even violent ones directed at myself and other Fire Nation leaders."
He appeared like he wanted to say something else, but I cut him off. "Was my father part of this group?"
The Fire Lord ignored me. "These are very secretive and elusive people. It's nearly impossible to uncover their meeting spots or their members, but we have leads."
I rolled my eyes when I didn't get an answer to my question. "So basically you're afraid of a bunch of your underlings who don't like the fact that you're trying to wipe out other civilizations..."
Sozin leaned forward and became much more stern. "I will not tolerate such misbehavior, Nalia. If you ever want to experience life as a free woman, and if you ever want to see your sister again, you will give me your absolute, unquestionable loyalty."
As much as I wanted to disobey, I couldn't risk Ming's freedom and safety. "You have it," I muttered.
"Excellent," he grinned viciously. "Now Nalia, I need you to fulfill certain kinds of... tasks. They will utilize your very unique skill set."
"Which skills are you talking about?"
"Rhong!" he barked.
The Imperial Firebender appeared once more, this time with a knife. I stared at him quizzically as he approached, then I gasped when he lunged at me. Instinctively, I pushed his wrist to the side with my left arm, and then punched him in the face with a right hook. After I knocked him to the ground by kicking out his knee, Sozin ordered me to stop.
"Those skills," he clarified.
I considered my options while Rhong left, ashamed. After that display, I couldn't easily deny the talents he was alluding too, and even if I did, he'd then have nothing to lose by killing both me and my sister. What would he want me to do with my fighting ability? "Are you asking me to take out the trash for you?" I inquired, reclaiming my chair.
"Take this," he handed me another sheet of parchment with a different strange symbol and a different name. "The most selective and lethal squad of the Fire Nation military is nothing but a myth to most people, but it is very real. Their role is to get all of the sheep of this country in line, making sure that no one strays too far from the herd."
"The Shepherds," I read aloud.
"The Shepherds indeed."
I gazed at the paper. From what I could gather, The Shepherds were the Fire Lord's personal assassins, meant to squash any threat he felt was too concerning in complete secrecy. "How many Shepherds are there?"
"Their numbers and identities are confidential, even to each other. They report directly to me, and their assignments are to terminate specific targets who pose threats to our nation and the war effort. I know that your father trained you, so I have little doubt that you can carry out the career of a Shepherd. If you're anything like what Kun bragged about to Commissioner Long, you are a perfect candidate."
How dare he invoke my father? If only I could have torn into him for those comments. Still, I saw that my options were limited to one. "I'll do it."
"That's good, because you didn't have a choice."
My attention was brought to the door when two men in masks entered and came over to my chair. They unchained me, and each of them took hold of one arm and one shoulder. I managed one last glimpse of Sozin before they brought me away, and I barely understand a mumbled "Welcome to winning team."
I was dragged outside, cuffed yet again, to some sort of courtyard. When the men stopped, I waited anxiously to see what would happen next. Suddenly, they grabbed my shirt, and despite my protests and struggling, they successfully ripped it off, exposing half of my body. I screamed at the thought of being half-naked outside, where anyone could see me.
"What are you doing, you bastards!" I snapped.
Neither of them replied, but one made his way to a fire that had been blazing inside a pit at the center of the courtyard. He took in his hand an iron rod, and I gasped when I realized that at the end of the rod was the Shepherds' symbol.
"Are you about to brand me?" I shrieked.
He turned and stepped closer, and the other man forced me to my knees. The one with the iron slowly took his place facing my back, and the next second I experienced the worst physical pain of my life, like nothing I had ever felt before. I can only hope that my screams weren't audible to Ming.
|Prologue - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -|
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